Back from black: Uri Zohar returns

Uri Zohar is one of the most fascinating and mysterious Israelis of all time, and an extraordinary new documentary sheds light on him.

URI ZOHAR is the subject of ‘Zohar: The Return.’ (photo credit: YANIV LINTON)
URI ZOHAR is the subject of ‘Zohar: The Return.’
(photo credit: YANIV LINTON)
Uri Zohar is one of the most fascinating and mysterious Israelis of all time, and an extraordinary new documentary, Zohar: The Return, by Yaniv Segalovich and Dani Rosenberg, sheds light on him.
Older audiences will remember Zohar as a trailblazing, irreverent stand-up comedian and bold movie director in the ’60s and ’70s. A provocateur along the lines of Lenny Bruce, his humor reflected Israel back to Israelis, but always with real bite and a twist.
His television sketch comedy, which was used in the films Lool and Shablul (the most memorable scene of which features Zohar as a gay, overly flirtatious martial arts instructor who speaks only Yiddish), has not dated at all, which is extremely rare with comedy.
His 1967 movie of A.B. Yehoshua’s Three Days and a Child is one of the classics of Israeli cinema and won a major award at Cannes. His other films, some of which were made in collaboration with his close friend Arik Einstein, including Peeping Toms and Big Eyes, are still popular.
But Zohar disappeared from the pop-culture scene in the late ’70s to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. It’s hard to emphasize how revolutionary a transformation this was at the time, and Einstein wrote songs expressing his frustration, with lines like, “You left me, friend.” In a strange twist, Einstein’s ex-wife also became ultra-Orthodox, and Einstein’s two daughters married Zohar’s sons; so in spite of their differences, the onetime best friends ended up as grandfathers to the same grandchildren.
Zohar directed some political ads for Shas in the ’90s but otherwise kept out of the spotlight.
About a decade ago, Zohar decided to make a movie, aimed at the haredi audience, about a female dancer who embraces Orthodoxy, and he enlisted the help of Segalovich and Rosenberg, two young filmmakers who had studied at the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School. In addition to helping Zohar make the film, which was released successfully to ultra-Orthodox audiences, they made this documentary about him.
Footage of Zohar making his new movie is interspersed with new interviews and key clips from his films. Interestingly, Zohar tells the filmmakers that he had not watched any of his films since becoming religious or seen the news clips about the weddings of his sons to Einstein’s daughters.
Zohar reveals that Peeping Toms and Big Eyes were his favorites among his films “because I made them about us, about me, about my wife, about Arik, about Sima [Eliyahu, Einstein’s second wife], about [Tzvi] Shissel [a friend and collaborator]. In the end, we played ourselves, our lives.”
Peeping Toms was filmed at the beach where they hung out. He admits it was unconventional to make a movie with little plot, no murders or forbidden love, just a look at two friends and their often outrageous daily lives.
Looking at Big Eyes, where he plays a high school sports coach who is angry at everyone in his life, he says it was a depressing reflection of his reality at that time, of how his ego got in his way.
“If, for one minute, people weren’t looking at me, I didn’t exist,” he says.
Talking about his religious awakening, he credits the rabbi, Yitzhak Shlomo Zilberman, with convincing him logically that God exists, which precipitated the crisis that caused him to change his life. He didn’t change only his lifestyle but his whole outlook. Before he was religious, “I didn’t know what love was. I thought it was something that happens.... [Later] I understood love is something that you build, not something that happens.”
Working with actors in the new film, he is quite demanding and says that he often remembers scenes from his older films and wishes he could have done them better.
Watching the movie clips, I was struck by how cinematically accomplished his films were, and how lively. This documentary doesn’t explain where you can watch Zohar’s feature film about the dancer, but it certainly made me curious about it.
At the end, the directors ask Zohar if this is his last film, and he jokes, “It’s my first.”